The Hasidic Table and the Rebbe: A Powerful Encounter

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March 1, 2012
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Shulem Deen

“To be a Hasid, one must push,” my brother Avrumi used to say to me. It was back when I was 13 years old and he was 11, around the same time he’d started running around town on Erev Shabbat, on Friday night, to the tischen of various rebbes in our Hasidic neighborhood of Borough Park, Brooklyn.

The tisch (table) is the place where the rebbe eats his Shabbat meals on Friday night and Saturday evening. For the committed Hasid, it is the highlight of his week, when he gathers with his rebbe and his fellow Hasidim in an amalgamation of food, song, dance, prayer, and occasional words of inspiration. The rebbe sits at the head of a large table with his male family members by his side, with the rest of the community arrayed, sitting or standing, around them.

At the time my brother chided me about pushing, I didn’t enjoy tischen much, seeing them mostly as tedious affairs led by small-time rebbes who spoke in Old-World-accented Yiddish about Torah study, or prayer, or kugel, or good Jews, or bad non-Jews. There were uninspiring songs, tepid melodies sung half-heartedly and off-key by unenthusiastic crowds. I was far more concerned that my black, faux-silk caftan wouldn’t become creased, that my polished black shoes would remain shiny, and that my beaver-fur hat wouldn’t get knocked into a bowl of chicken soup. It was the crowds, most of all, that I disdained — the sense that in order to partake of this ceremony, to play a part in this theater (for the tischen were always overtly theatrical) one had to inhabit a space in which bodies were packed, often for hours on end, more tightly than a crowded subway at rush hour.

It was when I expressed this disdain for the crowds at the tisch that my brother rebuked me about the need to push: “Tzi zein a khusid darf men zich shtippen” — to push the crowd and to allow oneself to be pushed with it; to shove and be shoved; to allow the force of bodies pressed closely together to permeate one’s senses — the tactile, the auditory, the olfactory — while crowding around the rebbe, who served as a conduit between his flock and whatever ethereal realm he had special access to.

It was only several months later, when I first visited the village of New Square, N.Y. that I grew enchanted with the tisch. As we gathered around an enormous table in the center of the large synagogue, I watched as hundreds of men and boys stood pressed tightly against one another on six-story bleachers, eyes fixed on the rebbe as he ate tiny forkfuls from oversized portions of boiled chicken and sweet carrots. Strange boys shook my hand and made room for me on the bleachers. Gruff middle-aged men offered me plates of roasted chicken and potato kugel and bowls of apple compote, insisting that I eat, eat, because there was plenty more. And then there were the songs and dancing that carried an energy that I’d never before experienced.

Despite Hasidism’s embrace of the spiritual capacity of the common man, it nevertheless asserts the elite status of the rebbe, the tzaddik, the perfectly righteous individual, of whom the Talmud tells us: “The righteous one decrees, and the Holy One, blessed be he, complies.” Among Hasidim, however, the tzaddik’s status stems not from demonstrable piety but from the power of the people who, by their very recognition of him, imbue him with his powers; it’s a theological democracy of sorts. Scholarship isn’t a necessary quality of a rebbe, even though many rebbes have undoubtedly been scholars. Neither is oration, although many have surely been great orators. It is the tisch, therefore, that serves as the primary venue for a Hasid’s interaction with his rebbe. The rebbe might offer words of Torah — pietistic homilies, typically, rather than scholarly discourse. The Hasid might partake of the rebbe’s shrayim, the leftovers from his meal, from which nitzotztot — the sparks of the divine trapped within — have been raised by the rebbe. There might be Shabbat songs, zemirot, and a snaking circle of dancing Hasidim around the synagogue. Whatever the form — and the form varied among different “courts” — the tisch is primarily a place of communion with the rebbe and also with fellow Hasidim.

I later realized that the tisch is also a mechanism for the Hasid to become enveloped within the communal experience of ritual performance. While the rebbe is clearly the focus of the tisch, the tisch isn’t really about the rebbe but about a community experiencing itself fully as a single organism, each part playing its role: the young men and boys dancing; the elderly men sitting around the table swaying gently; the elderly gabbai setting food in front of the rebbe and then distributing his leftovers; the rebbe’s family arrayed in their places of privilege; and, of course, the rebbe himself, to which all eyes are turned. The rebbe might be the heart, but an organism does not consist of a heart alone.

One of the most beloved times for a tisch (more common among the Skver Hasidim, my now-former community) is at seudah shlishit, the third meal of Shabbat. The tisch is held in total darkness in the final moments before the day of rest passes into the next weekday. Those moments, the kabbalists tell us, are times of ra’ava dera’avin, when the divine presence is revealed with greater intensity to those who seek it, a time for mokhin degadlut, of expanded consciousness of the divine.

In a haunting poem, Benei Heikhala Dikhsifin, Isaac Luria speaks of the unveiling of cosmic light in those hours before Shabbat ends. Despite my having left the Hasidic community many years ago, I recently attended a rebbe’s tisch. I noticed that hearing the poem no longer made the hair on my arm stand stiff; the rebbe’s chanting now sounded irritatingly mournful. The words were still beautiful, carrying a faint but distinctive reminder of the ecstatic heights they once triggered in me. It was then that I remembered my brother’s words, an eleven-year-old’s aphorism, and realized how right he was. As someone who no longer holds Hasidic belief, or observes its practice, I no longer felt the tactile quality of participation; I no longer pushed among the crowd. For me, the tisch was now mere performance and I, as in childhood, only a tired audience member.

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Shulem Deen is the founding editor of a Web journal, Unpious: Voices on the Hasidic Fringe (www.unpious.com). His articles have appeared in the Forward, the Brooklyn Rail, the New York Daily News, and elsewhere. A former Skver Hasid, he now lives in Brooklyn, N.Y.

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